It's the holidays and trying to nail down that perfect gift for the geeks in your life can be hard. Luckily for you, I am here to help point you in the right direction with my Top 10 Holiday gifts from Merlyn's
#10 Boss Monster:
The coolest thing about Boss Monster: Master of the Dungeon, the fast-playing, “dungeon building” card game designed and published by Brotherwise Games, is the theme.
In the game, 2-4 players take the role of legendary, soulthirsty monsters with names like Xyzax, Progenitor Lich; Gorgona, Queen of Medusia; and Seducia, Sorceress of Sexiness. Your goal? Build a deathtrap dungeon filled with enough glittering treasures to lure the hapless heroes (who appear in town at the start of each turn) to their demise, so that you can add their souls to your knickknack shelf. Specifically, you have to have the right kind of treasures to lure the specific kind of heroes who are milling about town this month — legendary weapons for fighters, spellbooks for mages, moneybags for thieves, and holy relics for clerics — and you have to have more of that specific kind of treasure than any of the other boss monsters, all while keeping your dungeon deadly enough to survive the second wave of epic heroes who appear in the later rounds. Once a hero appears at your doorstep, if you don’t manage to kill them before they reach your boss chamber, they’ll become a wound (and a stain on your reputation). First to 10 souls wins, but 5 wounds has you eliminated from the game.
Actually, the coolest thing about Boss Monster is the art style. You see, you aren’t just any boss monster, and your dungeon isn’t just any dungeon. You’re the ultimate villain of an 8-bit sidescrolling video game in the vein of Castlevania and Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. True to its premise, the game is packed full of some of the most deliciously authentic and charming pixel art I have seen. References to video games, both classic and modern, exist alongside movie scenes (look for a Princess Bride reference), winks at tabletop gaming, and a digitized Alex Trebek wearing devil horns (the “Jeopardy” spell card, which is a double reference to the “Wheel of Fortune” card from the classic trading card game, Magic: The Gathering). Even the cards that aren’t referencing something (if there are any) are crammed full of tiny details, like the adorably inebriated goblin in the “Monster’s Ballroom.” Want to know a true sign of quality? When you have several cards in the game that are identical in name and function, and each one has unique artwork.
The 8-bit conceit is marvelously consistent, and it flavors every aspect of the game. The box art is rendered in the style of a certain well-known Nintendo game. The “Instruction Booklet” is filled with “Pro Tips” that will set you on the fast track to playing with power. Kickstarter backers of the game even received a gold-sleeved “Legendary Edition,” pictured below; a handful of hefty gold Boss Monster arcade tokens; and a digital package including a chiptune soundtrack mp3 and “Boss Monster Strategy Guide” (done in the style of a retro Nintendo Power issue). While none of these goodies is essential to enjoying the game, they are a testament to Brotherwise’s devotion to their genre.
But how does it play? As seen in the card images above, each of the game’s room cards features one or more “treasure icons”: either a sword, book, relic or bag of gold. In addition, each room has a damage indicator (the number within the black heart) and a special ability. Similarly, each hero has a treasure icon and a health value (the number within the red heart). The hero takes damage for each room in your dungeon, and if you can equal or exceed its health value, you win the hero’s soul.
The 8-bit art style is more than cosmetic, however. True to its roots, Boss Monster is Nintendo Hard — for the heroes, that is. Don’t mistake this for a cooperative, play-against-the-game type of experience. You can build up to 5 rooms in your dungeon at a rate of one room per turn, so after the third or fourth turn, ordinary heroes won’t stand a chance against a decently constructed lair. The real competition is against your rival boss monsters — before you can devour their souls, you’ll need to lure the heroes to your dungeon, and that means having more of the indicated treasure type than any of the other players.
Rather than give the heroes special abilities based on whether they’re a thief, mage, or whatever, each treasure type is associated with a particular style of gameplay that matches the environments most likely to be traversed by the hero it lures. The sword icon, irresistible to fighters, is usually associated with high-damage, low-complication Monster Rooms. The book icon, a lure for mages, are less damaging, but they tend to allow you to draw powerful spell cards, which are the main way the game allows you to foil your opponents’ plans or weaken heroes in your own dungeon. The relic icon, which draws clerics, tends to allow you to “resurrect” cards from the discard pile. Finally, the moneybags icon, quite popular with thieves, is often associated with Trap Rooms. These are the trickiest type of dungeon chamber, weak on their own but able to be destroyed (removed from your dungeon) for a powerful onetime benefit, as seen in the image to the right.
Each type of room is designed to synergize with other rooms of its type, and there are some killer combos waiting to be unlocked. However, if you focus only on one type of treasure, you’ll miss out on luring other kinds of heroes, and your dungeon’s entrance will be gathering cobwebs while everyone else is piling up the bodies. There are some rooms with multiple treasure icons, but these rooms aren’t usually very good at doing the actual killing. Spread yourself too thin, and you’ll find yourself easy prey for the epic heroes that appear in the latter half of the game. Remember when I said that the heroes aren’t a real threat in Boss Monster? Wait until you have a 13-health epic fighter knocking down the door to your five-room dungeon.
The real tension in Boss Monster comes from deciding when and where to build your rooms. Because many rooms have abilities that affect adjacent rooms or only trigger when the hero dies in that room, room order is huge. Additionally, you’ll need to weigh when to capitalize on an early lead and when to start preparing for the coming of the epic heroes (who deal double wounds but yield double souls), when to take a wound to prevent an opponent getting a kill, and when and how to play your spell cards or destroy your rooms. Do you play this card now to lure in the mage, even if it would weaken your dungeon in the long run? Any room can be built on top of any other room, but there are certain advanced rooms that can only be built on top of other rooms, and only if they have the same treasure type. Are you willing to cover up a room with a fantastic special ability in order to have the more tempting dungeon this round? Will you be able to destroy this new room later on in case you need what’s underneath? Although the game plays in only 15-20 minutes and is accessible to both casual and hardcore players, the decision space (once you have grasped the basic flow of the game) is intriguing and, dare I say, addicting.
All this in a standalone, compact $25 game box.
If you do find yourself wishing for more of an uphill challenge, the rulebook features suggestions for a Hard Mode, in which the weakest heroes are removed before the game begins. What this means is that regular heroes are more likely to wound you and epic heroes are more likely to appear before you’re ready. Although it seems like such a small change, it really alters the feel of the game, and you’ll often feel like you’re battling on two fronts at once, trying to survive the heroes while snatching up whatever points you can. On top of that, there’s a mini-expansion, Tools of Hero-Kind, in the works that centers around hero-buffing items (that become monster-buffing items if you manage to kill the little blighters). There’s also a standalone, sci-fi themed expansion, Crash Landing, that will be getting its own Kickstarter sometime in the future.
By the way, did I mention that every single hero has its own unique pixel art and backstory, and that the majority of these were created in partnership with backers from the game’s Kickstarter campaign? Yes, the coolest thing about Boss Monster is undoubtedly the community surrounding the game, and the lengths to which Brotherwise Games have gone to foster that creative community. If you’re worried about the game being filled with pointless “Vanity Cards,” don’t be.
#9 Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition:
So first things first. This edition fixes a on of the issues that we all had with 4th edition. To be honest, there are still a couple of things that I think are annoying but the good news is that they are so minor that any DM running the game can just state that it doesn't work like that.
Dungeons and Dragons has been around forever because it works well and is great fun. There are many vast worlds worlds to have your game based in and in each of those worlds the option to be part of any of the awesome points in history that make that world unique. For me its Faerun in the Forgotten Realms setting. What about going to the Moonshae Islands to go on adventures with Tristan Kendrick, the legendary warrior who slew the dreaded Darkwalker Kazgoroth the Beast. Or you could going on a legendary quest helping the Seven Sisters and doing a task for each; and if you are lucky you could run into the legendary Sage of Shadowdale, the great Elminster himself. You could go to Waterdeep and work for the Blackstaff. Or do you want to try to rise through the ranks of the Zhentarim and challenge the great Manshoon for right to rule. All of these things and countless other opportunities await within the confines of this amazing game.
#8 Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer:
Ascension can be played with anywhere from 2-4 players (you can go up to 6 when you add in an expansion set). Each player begins with a 10-card deck of resource cards (think mana in Magic) in the form of runes which are used to buy heroes and constructs (artifacts) and power which is used to kill monsters. Every turn, players draw five cards and use those cards to purchase/kill cards either out of a communal center deck, of which six cards are always available, or out of a sidebar consisting of weaker, but cheaper, resource cards. Players use cards out of their hand to acquire any new cards off of the board they can before ending their turn and drawing a new five-card hand. When your draw pile empties, you reshuffle your discard pile which now also consists of all your newly acquired cards, and your deck grows ever bigger with each cycle.
The object of the game is to acquire honor – Ascension’s third resource type. Honor is gained both through the defeating of monsters, but also earned in varying amounts with the different heroes and constructs you collect during the game. Once the starting pool of honor tokens is depleted – the size of which differs depending on how many players are playing – the game ends, and the winner is the person who accumulated the most honor.
If it sounds simple, it’s because it is. That’s probably Ascension’s greatest asset. Both people who I’ve taught the game to immediately grasped it about a third of the way through their first game. Unlike many other games in the genre, Ascension’s learning curve is very low which is likely why it remains one of the most popular games of its kind. Where the real thrill of the game comes is after a couple of trips through your deck, you can create some really crazy card combinations to acquire loads of points in one turn. Watching the elation grow in my wife as she progressed step-by-step through an 8-card combo (many cards allow you to draw additional cards from your deck to play) to bring in a huge honor haul are the moments Ascension builds to in every game. The other great thing about Ascension is that it can be played very quickly; most games only last about 30 minutes. This allows for both a quick game here and there as well as a series of several games in a row if that’s what you’re in the mood for.
You can tell this game was designed by fans of Magic: The Gathering, as the similarities shine from the different types of abilities each card has, to the presence of different “factions” (i.e. colors) in the game. The art style also screams Magic, as each card art was hand-designed by the same artist. Whether or not you are a fan of the art is a matter of personal taste; I dig it, but some won’t enjoy the very rugged (a nicer way to say unpolished) hand-drawn art style. One criticism I will level at Ascension is that there are times, especially early in the game, where you can feel like you and your opponents are playing dueling games of solitaire, as there isn’t a ton of player-to-player interaction until your deck builds up a bit. Another critique I noticed in researching the game before I purchased it was that many reviewers felt the game was too luck based, as you never know what cards will appear in the center row throughout the game. I don’t buy this claim, as the strategy comes from developing a deck building concept early in the game and getting the cards to create those game-swinging chains you need to win the match.
I have enjoyed Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer a great deal since I’ve picked it up, and maybe more importantly, friends I have introduced to the game have as well. Even better is that if you grow tired of your basic set of cards, there have to date been four other expansions released for Ascension so far, each of which adds new game mechanics and new heroes, constructs, and monsters to the mix to keep things fresh. The game is even designed in such a way that you can mix and match expansions with one another to the point where you can create custom “cubes” or center deck stacks to use in the game. If you are looking for something new to shake up your tabletop game night, give Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer a look. Even if you aren’t a fan of tabletop games, you can also get a digital version of Ascension on the Apple App Store (and soon on Android and Steam), complete with all of the expansions that you can optionally purchase. Be careful if you do though; you might find it just as addicting as I did.
#7 Bert and Ernie Puppets:
Bert and Ernie are great. They are funny, educational, and easy to love...all qualities that you want for a toy to play with your kids. These little puppets are awesome and if you have young nieces and nephews like I do, making them smile with something that made you smile as a kid is a great feeling.
#6 Last Night on Earth:
Zomibe Survival games are fun, espically when you can be the zombies. This is one of the first table top games I played with a large group and I have nothing but good things to say about it. But instead of me telling you about it, click the link to see a Table Top Review of this great Game
#5 Magic The Gathering Commander Format:
I have been playing Magic on and off since 1994. Never in the history of the game have I found a format that I like more than Commander. It's incredibly accessible to new players as you can play with almost every card ever made and you only need one of any card that you like. This means that for new players, if they find a card that they really want to play with that cost $20 they only need to buy the one for a full play-set instead of 4 like in other Magic Formats. Another of my favorite attributes of the game is that with so many cards to choose from you almost never run into playing against the same deck over and over from different people. And the started decks come stacked with great cards. When I opened my first sealed deck I was astonished with how many of the cards that I wanted to play with and realized that right out of the box the deck was awesome.
#4 V for Vendetta Graphic Novel:
I love this book. Those of you who know me know that I love V so much that I am getting a tattoo in homage to this great book. I know most of you have seen the movie but how many of you have read this great book? I have two copies of it in my collection, you should definitely have one and I would love to be the one to sell it to you.
#3 The Walking Dead:
It is a world wide phenomenon. Comics, Graphic Novels, Board Games, Lunch-boxes, iPad Cases, Figurines, the TV Show. The Walking Dead is everywhere because it is bloody awesome. I love it more than I should and I know everyone around me feels the same. Everything about it is amazing and we have a ton of different pieces of merchandise so that you have a wide range of items to choose from.
#2 Comic Books:
There are so many cool stories going on right now. Wolverine is dead, Cyclops killed Xavier, Thanos is being paid to destroy worlds, Tony Stark is a hilarious jerk and even cured Daredevil of his blindness. Comics are an easy gift to give with an almost endless supply of material to choose from. The four books in the picture are actually the four that I just bought because they are really really good. Ask anyone who works here and we can point you to a book that is awesome and will meet your interests.
You all knew that this game was going to be my number 1 and for good reason. You can play it with almost anyone with few exceptions. There are a ton different themes that you can play; superheroes, pirates, pathfinder, legends, zombies, vampires, secret agent....the list goes on and on. The game is funny, witty, and a plain old good time. Every person that I have ever shown the game to loves it. I own more versions of it then I want to admit at I see another version that I will be purchasing soon. It literally makes the perfect gift.